Dog sledding, particularly racing, is a very popular sport in most northern countries. Dog sled races are held all over the United States, Canada, Europe and Russia, with other countries also participating in the sport. Dog sledding is increasingly seen in smaller, less competitive types of events that focus on winter sports and getting outdoors.
There are three general categories of sled dog racing. The first is the long-distance, which is typically a minimum of three hundred miles and often over one thousand miles in duration. These races will several days or even weeks to compete, with the 1000 mile races typically 13-17 days for all but the very best teams. The mid distance races are usually 100 to 300 miles and will take two days, with a mandatory lay over at the end checkpoint before doubling back to cross the start/finish line. Not all are a similar run, there are straight courses as well on these shorter events. The final type of race is the sprint or short distance. These races are not over 25 miles and not usually shorter than 4, designed to test the speed and endurance of the dogs over shorter courses, without multiple day competitions.
The following are some of the larger long dogsled races around the world. Although the Alaska Iditarod is perhaps the most well known, it is also only for professional mushers that have competed in other smaller races with proven results. Since the race is almost 1200 miles thought uninhabited areas of the great north, it is essential that these dog handlers know how to compete and how to protect and ensure the safety of their dogs.
Another long distance race that is very popular is the relatively new Yukon Quest. This race, which is over 1000 miles long, is run between Fairbanks in Alaska and Whitehorse in the Yukon. It has been designed to closely match the trail that the early miners took on the Klondike Gold Rush. Each team consists of 6 to 14 dogs that travel this bitterly cold route run annually in February. The typical time to complete the race is 10 to 20 days. There are checkpoints every 200 miles along the route with options to have a specific number of spare dogs to replace any dogs that are injured or unfit to continue. The fastest time recorded was in 2009 in 9 days, 23 hours and 20 minutes.
There are other long distance races around the world as well. In Norway there is a 1000 km race held annual each year. This race has the distinction of being the most northern dog sled race in the world, and the temperatures are well below those often seen in the Alaskan and northern Canadian races. There is also another 500 km race in the country and also relay style race along the Vindeln River in Sweden.
A dog sled race that has been reinvented after many years of inactivity is the American Dog Derby. This race is not a true long distance race, rather it combines several races into one exciting spectator event. The race lengths include 100, 60,40 and 20 mile distances, all starting in Ashton, Idaho. This race originally ran from 1917 until the 1963, making it the first organized dog sled race in the world. In 1993 a committee was develop to reinstate the races, which honor the tradition of mushing throughout the area.
Of course Alaska is home to many shorter and mid length races throughout the winter months. These races are all considered by the mushers and the spectators alike to be training activities for the much longer races. However, with more modern emphasis on specific breeding and race dynamics, the shorter mid distance or sprint types of racing is really becoming popular.
Races, depending on the type and the organization hosting the race can be started, are run and completed differently. Generally the long distance races are run strictly against the clock for the record, with a bit of friendly rivalry between the mushers and their teams. Mid distance and sprint races are often run more like races, with organized sprints like horse races of teams starting all together. Mass starts on longer races are rare although they can be very dramatic. Often there are ceremonial starts and parades that allow all the teams to be seen and cheered on before they depart on their race.
In all recognized dog sled races greater emphasis has been placed on safety for the dogs. All dogs have to be microchipped for identification purposes as well as blood tested for steroids, pain killers and other types of potentially performance enhancing drugs. This is done in advance of the race and may also be done at the end of the race. Vets are on site during the race as well as at checkpoints, with the vets having the authority to pull a dog from the race. Mushers that do not follow the guidelines for the care and racing of the dogs are subject to monetary fines and loss of ability to compete in future events.
Public pressure, media attention and monitoring by animal welfare groups have increased the awareness of the possible situations that can occur on the trail and how the dogs need to be correctly treated. In general most dogs are highly prized breeding stock and are also part of a team that may have trained for years to be able to compete in some of the top money events.
Dog sled racing is still largely a northern sport and type of competition. It takes a very special type of man or woman as well as a very special breed of dogs to endure the cold weather, treacherous trails and strength sapping running to complete these races. However, once people and dogs get started, it seems to become a lifelong passion and love, with many mushers continuing to mentor and work with younger mushers and those interested in the sport for many years after their official retirement.